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Xenophobic attitudes unfair response to coronavirus outbreak

The hysteria and misinformation surrounding the coronavirus has glorified the virus’ potential effect on the United States. At UCLA, attendance for Chinese 50: “Chinese Civilization” class was made nonmandatory for students, signaling an unfair spread of fear, hysteria and harmful rumors. (Tanmay Shankar/Assistant Photo editor)

By Elizabeth Hanczor

Feb. 6, 2020 10:40 p.m.

Headlines across the world have exposed the tragic horror of the spreading coronavirus in China.

Unfortunately, rumors, misconceptions and xenophobia have emerged as a consequence.

But as students and schools continue to ignore the line between valid concerns and xenophobic bias, Chinese students are being isolated from their rightful academic communities within the University of California.

People should grow up, consult the research and get a flu shot.

While there are only 12 living cases of coronavirus in the United States, roughly 5% of the U.S. population has contracted the flu – and 10,000 have died this season alone.

The deadly strain of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, that is spreading quickly throughout China was first discovered in the city of Wuhan in late December by Li Wenliang. Unfortunately, authorities accused Li of spreading false rumors, and as a result, the virus spread quickly before containment procedures were put in place. Tragically, Li has since died of the virus.

According to a live map created by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, 31,393 people have been infected by 2019-nCoV since the outbreak, with over 31,127 of these cases originating in China.

Now, a media frenzy has unnecessarily glorified the virus’ potential threat to the U.S.

And racially driven consequences have begun to seep into the UC and UCLA’s campus. Students need to educate themselves on the nature of the virus, check their biases based on the facts and proactively support Chinese students with families living overseas.

Because those biases certainly exist.

Recently, the course Chinese 50: “Chinese Civilization” at UCLA changed its attendance to nonmandatory over the coronavirus outbreak. The professor suggested in an email to his students that the large class size had become a health concern for students and advised his class to be mindful of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates to take caution protecting themselves and others.

Because the professor himself is Chinese and the change was made at the urging of the students, some students enrolled in the course do not believe that this message was delivered with any racially charged intent.

Regardless, it unfairly builds hysteria in a class focused on Chinese culture and leads to rumors – harmful ones – that sharply contrast statements released by UCLA’s Health Division of Infectious Diseases and the Arthur Ashe Student Health Center.

Kelly Huang, a second-year biology student, said she decided to take Chinese 50 because she was interested in better understanding her Chinese heritage. After receiving the first email from her professor, she said she could not believe the dramatic drop in student attendance.

“I was really shocked the first time,” Huang said. “I walked in and was like, ‘Wow, this class is really empty.’”

As many people will surely attest, if all lecture materials are provided online, students will stay in bed – even if they are not concerned about coronavirus.

But now, students that do show up for class are confronted with a shockingly small cohort and might understandably question if they should be concerned for their health.

Maya Sinha, a third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student who is also in Chinese 50, thought the sudden change was unusual.

“I was a little bit confused because that was the only class out of all my classes that had any impact,” Sinha said. “Even our midterm was moved from Tuesday to Friday, which threw me off a little bit.”

But this class is not the only portion of campus affected by the outbreak of the virus. Students with Chinese backgrounds have been feeling the social impact as well.

And it’s generally been for the worse.

Sean Haung, a third-year biochemistry student, caught the flu on his way home from Minnesota for Lunar New Year and was instructed to wear a mask by his doctor.

“When I went to class, especially with the whole thing about the coronavirus and my flu mask, everyone was definitely looking at me,” Haung said. “It was to the point where whenever I would get out of my lecture hall, I would take it off right away.”

UCLA supposedly prides itself on being a school that values diversity. Instead, the community seems surprisingly comfortable drawing false conclusions that students of a certain race could have a serious virus.

Unfortunately, Bruins aren’t the only ones to blame. More extreme examples of blatant racism related to coronavirus have been occurring at other UCs.

For example, UC Berkeley’s University Health Services office posted a statement saying xenophobia was one of many “normal” reactions to new information on coronavirus. Several students chimed in on the institution’s Instagram page to condemn the normalization of racism on campus. The university has since rescinded and apologized for the statement.

Likewise, a UC Santa Barbara student created a petition addressed to the school requesting the monitoring of the student body and campus closure.

Some may argue that it is better to be proactive and wary about the illness than simply do nothing at all. This is entirely valid. However, while the CDC is encouraging standard flu protocol at this time – wash your hands and avoid sick people – it is not encouraging xenophobia or racial profiling.

Coronavirus is a serious illness that is catastrophically impacting China. But students at UCLA, within California and across the greater U.S. need to be mindful of the media’s exacerbation of the problem. Moreover, students need to account for the distress this situation can cause students with Chinese backgrounds and family members potentially living overseas.

On campus, UCLA should focus on dismantling xenophobia, increasing awareness and supporting Chinese students with cause for concern.

Because this tragedy serves as a reason to strengthen campus communities – and it’s certainly not a justification to draw them apart.

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Elizabeth Hanczor
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